Until now Ron Sexsmith has appeared to be a reluctant rock star, one whose willingness to lay his heart on his proverbial sleeve underscores a sensitivity and naiveté that's readily apparent in his boyish demeanor and confessional songs.
His new album, Retriever, suggests Sexsmith may be ready to steer his starry-eyed odes of passion and puppy love toward a wider audience. Whereas earlier efforts have been propelled by wistful melodies and a somewhat unwieldy vocal style, he has trumped up his tunes, sharpened his hooks, and written some songs with real commercial possibilities. The opening triumvirate alone revels in pure pop perfection, from the plaintive lament of "Hard Bargain" ("When the world is breaking my heart/You drive a hard bargain") and lingering sadness of "Imaginary Friends" ("They will always let you down") to the insistent embrace of "Not About to Lose."
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As Retriever progresses, however, it begins to meander, with mixed results. The winsome "From Now On," "Wishing Wells," "Happiness," and "I Know it Well" are pleasant diversions, but the bare-boned "For the Driver" (eerily reminiscent of Elvis Costello in one of his maudlin moods) and the Love Sponge String Quartet's saccharine melodies on "Whatever it Takes" and "Tomorrow in Her Eyes" only deepen the already pervasive melancholia. No surprise, though, since Sexsmith always serves a fine whine.